Cooking the Books – Green City Market Cookbook

A quick note for Chicago folks: paella class is back! July 26 (next Tuesday) at the Peterson Garden Project, sign up here. It was great fun last summer, I hope you can join me!

Of the many (many, many) things I love about not-winter, aka May through October, in Chicago, finally getting fresh produce and kitchen inspiration from the farmers market is just about at the top of my list, not far behind dinner on my porch, lunch on the beach, snacks in the park….basically anything food+outdoors.

Pink drinks

That’s one of the reasons I was so excited to try the Green City Market Cookbook for June’s cookbook club meeting. I bought this book from one of Chicago’s most iconic farmers markets when it first came out, but honestly only made a dish or two before it fell off my radar and sat, sadly neglected, on my bookshelf. The other reason I was excited to pick this book? Perfect excuse for a field trip.

Green City Market Cookbook

I could write a whole post just about Chicago-area farmer’s markets, but I’ll (attempt to) summarize my two favorites:

Farmers market 3

Green City Market has some of the best of everything Chicago has to offer when it comes to food, from the produce (obviously) and the food vendors (yes always to Nomad Pizza, Cookies and Carnitas, Co-op Hot Sauce, and Italian cider doughnuts, please) to the location smack in the middle of Lincoln Park.

It’s my favorite market to take out-of-town guests and show off the food of my adopted city, or to bring friends for some shopping and brunch. Oh, and I go to Green City Market for the cheese (Prairie Fruits Farms is my favorite).

Farmers market 2
Radishes within reach

That said, nearly every Saturday morning from spring through fall, I head north to the downtown Evanston farmer’s market to stock my fridge.

Herbs

Not quite as picturesque as Green City, but it has everything I want: a favorite fruit stand (which I will forever be grateful to for introducing me to damson plums), a handful of go-to vegetable vendors (my 10-for-$1 zucchini/pepper/eggplant/cucumber guy in mid-summer, Theresa’s and Henry’s for some of the best vegetable plants–and best vegetables–anywhere); a honey guy, a favorite bread lady. amazing empanadas for when I need a shopping snack… It also feels less packed than the city market with fewer double-wide strollers and no dogs–and you can’t beat free parking.

Farmers market 1

So, a week before our dinner, a few of us got up bright and early for a trip to the Green City Market (and, a few weeks later, the Evanston market) for inspiration and…let’s call it “research.”

This is what a cookbook club does when they go to the farmers market

After wandering the market, picking up a few provisions, we all left sufficiently inspired (and stuffed). With the fifteen dishes that we made, we ended up with a nearly vegetarian (two dishes with fish and one killer brisket) feast:

The other half Continue reading

May (and a little of June) in the Garden

Somehow summer always sneaks up on me. Between a flurry of “oh hey spring!” weekend fun and busy-ness and my day job, I looked at the calendar and suddenly it was almost mid-June.

But with a mostly rainy May, I lucked into a few perfect weekends (and some extra helping hands, aka my own master gardener) to get everything planted between my garden plot and pots on my porch. The plants certainly enjoyed all the rain, and I appreciated not having to babysit them while they were getting established.

I think this year is off to a pretty good start, don’t you? (May 11 vs June 5)

5/11
6/5

So far I planted from seeds:

  • Beans–I’m trying two new-to-me yellow and green bush bean varieties this year. I want to make my dad’s three bean salad this summer!
  • Peas–I’m excited to try these Dwarf Grey Sugar Snap Peas since they supposedly don’t require trellising.
  • RadishesFrench Breakfast (my most successful from-seed vegetable for the past three years), Early Scarlet Globe (new to me this year), Cincinnati Market, Plum Purple, and hoping I can get a watermelon radish to take this year!
  • Cucumbers–I found a perfect recipe for cornichon pickles last year, and this year I want to attempt pickles from my own Parisian pickling cucumbers. They’ve sprouted, which is farther than I got with seeds last year. So far, so good!
  • Carrots–With Parisian Market carrots, there’s obviously a French theme in my garden this year. But I’m excited to try these since they don’t need much depth, and they’re just so stinking cute.
  • Nasturtium–I’ve never planted these before, but I like the idea of adding the flowers to salads and having a little color in my garden.

5/31
5/31
5/31

For seedlings, I planted:

  • Broccoli–I love the swirls and spikes of Romanesco broccoli, so I figured I’d give it a shot in the garden. This is my first brassica-type plant, and while the bunnies took a nibble from some of the leaves, they don’t seem to have done too much damage.
  • Celery–Celery is actually among the few things I will pick out of a dish, but some good marketing sold me on trying Pink Plume celery. What can I say, I’m a sucker for a good sales pitch (which, incidentally, came down to “It doesn’t taste like regular celery!”).
  • Peppers–Oh boy. I may be getting nearly as bad with peppers as I am with tomatoes. I’ve got:
    • Maule’s Red Hot–I loved these for drying and using as crushed red pepper last year.
    • Corno di Toro Rossi–A bigger sweet/hot pepper.
    • Mellow Star Shisito–Just for something different.
    • Chile Pulla–I can’t find anything about growing these fresh, but the dried version is common in cochinita pibil, a Yucatan version of pulled pork, which has become my new grilling obsession.
    • Fireball–I loved these last year and they produced like crazy, even in a pot on my porch. They’re like a sweeter version of a jalapeno, and I’m excited to try pickling some this year.
    • Espelette–I told you there was a French theme this year. I got some of this special dried chile powder in France last year and am excited to try growing the peppers themselves.
    • Padron–I think I planted one of these, but I honestly can’t remember. I hope I did, they’d be so fun to have with my next batch of paella.

5/31
5/21
5/21

And then there are the tomatoes. I…might have a bit of an over-buying problem that will turn into an over-eating problem come July/August/September. But, tomatoes! I somehow lost a bunch of the plant labels, so I’m not 100% sure what all I planted, I just know I have 11 (or is it 12?) kinds. To the best of my recollection:

  • Cherry/grape tomatoes: Black cherry, Honeydew (yellow cherry), and an as-yet-to-be-determined variety of red cherry tomato
  • Small/medium tomatoes
    • Japanese Black Trifele–I grew this last year and liked it enough to try it again.
    • Another small red tomato, another one that I forgot the variety.
  • Slicing tomatoes
    • Pineapple–I only got a few of these last year, but they were so gorgeous and delicious that I wanted to try again (and be better about fertilizing them this time).
    • Wherokowhai–One of two dwarf tomatoes I’m trying out this year that are specifically bred to grow well in small spaces but produce full-sized tomatoes. So far they’re growing like crazy!!
    • Fred’s Tie Dyed Tomato–…And the other dwarf tomato.
    • Purple Cherokee–I traded sesame noodle salad for this beautiful homegrown tomato plant at the Chicago Food Swap!
    • Green Cherokee–I got this as a freebie from the Chicago Botanic Garden. How could I say no to a free tomato plant?!

5/31
5/27
5/27

As for herbs, I have: chives (I cut them back and took home two pounds of chive–and they grew 6 inches of new chives in five days), garlic chives, cilantro, lemon verbena, oregano, bay, parsley, basil, winter savory, nepitella, spearmint, tarragon, rosemary, and borage. And apparently some dill seed got into my garden, so I guess I’m growing dill, too. Maybe I’ll try some dill pickles (to give away–I am decidedly not a fan of dill).

5/30
5/21

Cooking the Books – Ina Garten’s Make It Ahead

Want to read more about Cooking the Books and my thoughts on Chicago’s food scene? Check out this interview I did with Third Coast Review!

Oh, Ina, if there was a way to live your life.

Zucchini tart

For April, we picked the Barefoot Contessa Make It Ahead cookbook. Let me say first that there’s a reason Ina’s built the reputation she has–her recipes work, and they are delicious. They may not test the bounds of kitchen creativity, but there’s definitely value in a recipe for perfectly cooked beef tenderloin or a not-watery vegetable lasagna, especially if you’re looking for a centerpiece dish for a party. If you have a house in the Hamptons, friends coming over to play bridge, and just stepped out to get a bouquet of freshly cut flowers from your best friend the florist, so much the better.

Sangria is served

Jeffrey approves
Jeffrey’s going to love this!

That said, I–we–definitely had some gripes with this book. First, the majority of the recipes seem to have been repurposed from other Barefoot Contessa cookbooks. This wouldn’t a big issue except these recipes were so obviously shoehorned into the “make ahead” concept and not always in a way that made sense.

The one I kept shaking my head at was her version of bouillabaisse. The recipe instructs you to make stock (which can be refrigerated up to a day, though the recipe isn’t exactly clear at which step your stock is done) and then, 30 minutes before serving, reheating the stock and adding all of the other ingredients. That’s just…making soup.

When I’m looking for a “make ahead” recipe, I want one that can be made completely a day or more ahead (or only needs a simple garnish or a component like rice or noodles) and is either as good or better the next day. This book has those kind of recipes–the noodle pudding she describes as “a mash-up of kugel and spanikopita,” which I could have eaten a pan of by myself, chicken pot pies, even the herb-roasted fish that you can assemble completely in single-serving packets a day in advance.

Noodle pudding
Chicken liver mousse

But the oddest recipes were ones like the roasted cauliflower snowflakes where the make ahead component is just cutting up a head of cauliflower, or the cream of wheat that has you combine milk, sugar, and maple syrup, refrigerate it, then reheat it when you’re ready to actually make cream of wheat. It’s not that these recipes don’t sound good–I adore roasted cauliflower and cream of wheat is one of my favorite winter Sunday breakfasts–they just seem forced into the make ahead concept.

Someone's waiting for a treat
Lemon-ginger molasses cake

Several of the recipes also bordered on too salty. This is a difficult critique since I think most people (including me) under-season their food, but there is nothing more frustrating than spending an hour on a recipe, filling a sink full of dishes, taking a bite of your creation…and needing to follow it with a glass of water. Just watch the salt in her recipes.

Happy group

There are some great recipes, though, as long as you ignore that they’re supposed to be “make ahead.” And you’re not on a diet–more power to her, Ina does not cower in the face of butter, eggs, or cheese.

This is what we made:

Continue reading

April in the Garden

I’ve been spying on my garden through the fence for the past month or so, watching and waiting to spot the first green tops of my chives. Last weekend, the first really gorgeous, warm weekend of the year, Peterson Garden Project gardens opened for the season, and I was out cleaning my plot, buying seeds, and getting a few cool weather plants in the ground.

Chives need a haircut

My chives are already about a foot tall and in need of a haircut. My oregano came back as well, along with a few radishes and a mess of dandelions. The dandelions and a bunch of other weeds got pulled, I added a little compost, planted some herb babies (cilantro, marjoram, and thyme), two Romanesco broccolis (a first for me), and got some seeds in the ground: carrots, radishes (French breakfast, Early Scarlet Globe, and Cincinnati Market), peas (a new-to-me variety that doesn’t need a trellis), and nasturtium.

Happy garden

This is my first year planting carrots, so I’m particularly excited about them. I got wee little fat ones called Paris market carrots that should be perfect since they don’t need much soil depth. Though as much as I appreciate the weather taking over watering duty since last Sunday, I think everything is sufficiently well-watered by this point and the rain can let up any day now…

Second-year Oregano

Next weekend I’m looking forward to getting tomato plants and other warm weather (we can only hope) vegetables from the PGP plant sale (I’ll also be making something to sell at their bake sale, so if you’re in the area, stop by!). I don’t have much of a plan for the rest of my garden this year–basil of course, sorrel (I’m nixing lettuce and greens otherwise, but I fell in love with sorrel last year), a few beans, a pepper or two, tomatoes wherever I can, plus another attempt at cucumbers. I found an amazing recipe for cornichon pickles last year and would love to make a batch with my own cucumbers.

Who else is gardening this year and what are you planting?

Macerated Oranges

All credit due to Chicago (and possibly global warming?), we barely had anything that qualifies as winter this year. A few days below freezing, a couple inches of snow–I only had to chip ice off my car once! I’m certainly not complaining (though watch us get a freak snowstorm next week).

Even so, by this time of year I am desperate for any fruit that 1) is not an apple and 2) actually tastes like something. Convenient then that just about every conceivable type of citrus is at its peak just in time to get me through to spring.

Sunny recipe for a sunny day
Lots of citrus and my new favorite knife

This recipe for oranges sweetened with sugar and soaked in their own juice, which I discovered flipping through Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking last month, is not only my ideal (and necessary) dose of vitamin C come mid-winter, it’s my new go-to dessert for a dinner party.

Naked oranges
Honey tangerines, blood oranges, and Cara-Cara oranges

I’ll be honest, most of the time when I have people over, dessert is at the bottom of my priority list. I can bake when I get a craving, but if I’m making dinner for friends, I’m focused on the main course. Finding a recipe that complements the rest of the menu, dealing with the intricacies of baking, and trying not to induce a food coma by the end of the meal? No thank you.

More oranges, and a growing pile of peels
Orange carcasses and their juice
No vitamin C deficiency here

These oranges, on the other hand, are dead simple and the most refreshing end to an indulgent meal. While it looks particularly pretty when you can mix up different colors and flavors of citrus (I used blood oranges, Cara-Cara oranges, and honey tangerines), it’s just as delicious with good, juicy, standard Navel oranges. Serve it alone or alongside a few biscotti to soak up the juice (or over a thin slice of Marcella Hazan’s ciambella). Perfection.

Perfect winter dessert

Macerated Oranges
Continue reading

Cooking the Books – Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking

“If you really want to make a friend, go to someone’s house and eat with him…The people who give you their food give you their heart.”

I stumbled on that quote while I was trying to find a way to start this post, and I can’t think of a more perfect way to sum up everything about this cookbook club and basically my entire philosophy on sharing food. Need more really be said?

Cozy start to the evening

…Well, yes, because that’s what I do here. In three meetings, these dinners have become a highlight of my month, not just for the amazing food (though, obviously, yum), but for the people. February’s dinner included three new members, and all three were among the last of us left drinking, eating, and talking past midnight. You know you’ve found a special group when new people fit in so easily it feels like they’ve always been there.

The crowd descends

It seems particularly fitting, then, that February’s cookbook was Italian, a culture that embodies “people who give you their food give you their heart,” and in which food and home and friends and family are deeply, inextricably intertwined.

Impressive feast

I’m ashamed to admit that, while I read through Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan like a novel at least twice when I got it a few years ago, I’d only made a recipe or two (and the minestrone I did make wasn’t the revelation I hoped it would be). But this dinner was a perfect excuse to really dig into it–not solely for the recipes, but for Marcella’s approach to food.

Dig in

Many of us expected a Julia Child-like friendliness and enthusiastic encouragement from the book, but Marcella’s opinionated style led to some fantastic (and hilarious) discussions throughout the whole month before we met, and again at dinner. There was at least a little angst (and a few foul words) directed towards the impossible-to-find salt-cured anchovies that Marcella insisted were essential. (Jarred anchovies were acceptable if you had no other options. Can only find anchovy paste in a tube or “bargain-priced” anchovies? Make another dish.)

Under Marcella's watchful eye

Personally I loved Marcella’s confidence that there is a “right” or “best” way to choose an ingredient or make a dish or organize a meal (salad course always to be served between the main and dessert, please and thank you). Granted, the best version may be the one her grandmother made (like the ciambella cake), but she also won’t deny you options to discover your own best version (for the ciambella, for instance, she says anise and wine are welcome additions).

Pesto
Cheese, salami, and gallette

Interestingly, this book had both the most ambitious recipes (mushrooms, ham, and handmade fettuccine bundled inside a handmade pasta package–yes, that’s pasta-filled pasta), and the simplest (a salad of raw fennel, salt, pepper, and olive oil) of any book we’ve picked so far. Most of the group went for the more project-y recipes (gelato, homemade tortellini), which were as good as you’d imagine, but the simple ones (the macerated oranges or fennel salad) were perfect compliments to the more complex dishes.

Negronis to go around

The unexpected discovery from this cookbook was finding that my Italian grandmother (who turned 102 last month, incidentally; yes she is amazing) regularly made one of my favorite dishes of the evening, pizza rustica (a.k.a. pork and cheese pie, Abruzzi style), a pastry dough stuffed with cured meats, cheeses, and eggs. As soon as I started describing the dish to my dad, he said “Oh, my mom and aunt always used to make that for Easter. It’s in the family cookbook.” And so it was, under “Italian Easter Pie.” I’m planning to attempt my grandma’s version in a few weeks. And maybe her German chocolate cake while I’m at it.

My Italian grandmother and her German chocolate cake

So, well-armed with Negronis and plenty of wine, these are the recipes we made from Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking: Continue reading

Cooking the Books – The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook

The grande dame of home cooking Julia Child said, “People who love to eat are always the best people.” No surprise, they’re also the best people to start a cookbook club with.

I posted about the first cookbook club in November (Dorie Greenspan’s Around My French Table). After this month’s meeting–a 15-dish extravaganza from the pages of the Smitten Kitchen Cookbook–I think this is the best thing I’ve done in the nearly four years I’ve been writing this blog.

We're an entertaining group

It’s all of what I love about dinner parties (great food, entertaining at home, not trying to split a check six ways or feeling rushed by a waiter trying to turn a table) and potlucks (trying lots of different dishes) without the not-so-great parts of each (paying for and cooking all the food yourself, that one person who always only brings a bag of Lay’s and a sleeve of Solo cups). Plus it’s a great reason to use the dozens of cookbooks I have overflowing my bookshelf.

The best part, though, is how quickly a group of strangers can become friends over a shared, homemade meal.

Dinner is served

Here’s how it works so far:

  • At each meeting, we pick a cookbook, date, and host for the next meeting. Many people in the group are willing to host to spread out the effort.
  • Everyone who’s coming adds themselves to a Google doc along with:
    • the name of the recipe(s) they’re planning to make
    • if oven or stove space is needed for reheating/keeping a dish warm
    • food allergies or other restrictions
  • We set a maximum of 15 for most meetings for the sake of space, conversation, and food (even with everyone only making a single recipe, we all go home with something for lunch the next day).
  • As much as possible, we stick to the recipe as written.
  • We meet, we eat, we drink (BYO, and the host usually has libations to share, too). We talk about the recipes we made, what worked and what didn’t, what other recipes we want to try (or have tried).

We picked the Smitten Kitchen Cookbook for January’s meeting. I’ve had this book since Deb did her booksigning in Chicago, but have only made a handful of recipes (though the red wine velvet cake and the carmelized onion and squash galette are two all-time favorites). To stay true to the spirit of the club, we decided recipes from her blog were off-limits; cookbook only!

February’s cookbook is the incomparable Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan. Want to play along at home? Pick a recipe, make it on February 20, and share what you made on Facebook! In Chicago and interested in joining the club? Send me an email!

A veritable Smitten Kitchen feast

When January’s meeting came around, these were the recipes at the table: Continue reading

So long, 2015!

It’s been quite a year. More travel than I ever imagined, growing and cooking delicious food, taking (and teaching!) my first paella class, starting a new group of like-minded foodies…As December 31 comes to an end, here are a few of my favorite moments from the past year.

One of my favorite pictures of the trip
First crawfish boil in New Orleans in January.

Feathers fly

Beachy keen

The only acceptable icy slushy white stuff I want to see
The only acceptable cold slushy white stuff I want to see on a beach in Aruba in March.
Mashed and infused
Garden chive flower vinegar.
Sarma
My favorite meal this year–Sarma in Boston in April with some of my favorite people.
Paella, ready for eating
Barcelona paella class in May.

Sant Pau Hospital

Yes, the bottom rack is a little overdone
Slow-smoked ribs to kick off summer.
London calling
London calling.
Tower Bridge
London’s Tower Bridge in July.
Talking
Teaching a sold-out class in August.
Digging in
Sharing what I learned about paella in Barcelona with my class in Chicago.
Tomato season
Glut of garden tomatoes.

Start to finish Eiffel

Paris by night
Paris by night in August.
Good people and good stories
First meeting of Cooking the Books in November. Can’t wait for the next one in January!

And no reflection on the year would be complete without mentioning the passing of my grandpa. I think about him often and wonder who I’ll send my paczki to this year…

My grandparents

Cheers to an incredible year past and a promising new year to come!

Holiday Giving Guide

Happy belated Thanksgiving everyone! Hopefully your weekend was full of food and friends and family, lots of pie, and plenty of good leftovers.

After Thanksgiving, though, the holiday season seems to come down like an avalanche of Can’t! Miss! Deals! that I’m still trying to dig my inbox out from under. Black Friday keeps creeping closer and closer to Thanksgiving dinner and I was getting emails about Cyber Monday deals last Tuesday. It’s barely December 1 and I’m already tired of every retailer on Earth yelling at me for not spending money.

Don’t get me wrong, I love buying gifts for people and I’m certainly not so self-righteous as to say I don’t like getting them (or that I didn’t snag a deal or two online over the weekend). But I’ve never posted a holiday gift guide here mostly because the Internet doesn’t need another list of too-expensive candles that smell like campfire and gin or a $200 scale to measure coffee beans, and no one wants to hear what’s on my actual Christmas wishlist (seriously, why are the caps for the air valves on my tires so easy to lose?!).

So instead of a gift guide for the holiday, how about a giving guide in honor of Giving Tuesday? Here are a few non-profits that I’m especially fond of that would be happy recipients of some holiday giving.

Foodlink
An amazing anti-hunger organization based in my hometown, Rochester, NY. They’re primarily a food bank, but they also organize year-round free and reduced-price lunch (and other meals) for kids, urban gardens and farm stands, a mobile market to neighborhoods where fresh produce isn’t easily accessible, healthful food education, and more. (I’m also a fan as the organization is currently run by one of my high school classmates.)

Girls Who Code
Working in IT at a major university, I see the gender gap in technology on a pretty regular basis, both in my job and in higher education. Girls Who Code encourages and teaches young women to pursue technology interests (they get to build robots!) and helps them build networks in the field.

Green City Market/Evanston Farmer’s Market
My two favorite farmers markets in Chicago. In addition to fantastic local fruits and vegetables and support for local farmers and food producers, both offer community outreach and education programs. Plus, you know, all the tomatoes.

Farmers market

Off the Street Club
Chicago’s oldest boys and girls club, founded in 1900, gives kids a safe place–physically and mentally–to be kids. In a neighborhood that’s more often associated with crime and gangs, Off the Street runs afterschool programs in the arts and sports, organizes fun outings around the city, provides resources for homework help, and sets up mentorship opportunities. They even run a full-on summer camp.

Open Books
Just like everyone deserves a full belly and a place to feel safe, everyone deserves to have good books in their life. Open Books provides high-quality used books to kids and adults through grants to schools, educators, and other non-profits, in addition to mentoring and creative writing and publishing workshops. Even better? Indulge your own book habit online or in their stores and the funds go to support their literacy programs.

Open Books

Peterson Garden Project
This one should be pretty obvious, coming from me. PGP teaches people to grow and cook their own food through their community gardens and cooking school, along with lots of other educational programs to support that mission. I loved teaching my first class there this summer and am looking forward to another year of gardening with them in spring (only five months to go!).

Talking
P6280088

Planned Parenthood
They’ve been victim to a lot of attacks in both word and deed this year, but the health services (yes, all of them) and education they provide to women (and men) are so important. They’ve been a life-saver for me and more than a few people I know.

Slow Food
I knew about slow food as a movement, but Slow Food as an international organization was new to me this year. In Chicago, they offer amazing food events, classes, and an urban garden all to support better access to food that is good, clean, and fair for everyone.

Slow Food

Station North Tool Library
One of my sisters just moved to Baltimore to build her jewelry business and she told me about this community organization in her neighborhood. They have a lending library for all kinds of tools, a woodshop, metalshop, and classes on how to build all kinds of things. I wish there was something like this in Chicago! I mean, come on, they have a class where I could make my own chef’s knife.

Co-Op Sauce
Technically this isn’t a non-profit, but Co-Op Sauce started off as one, and half of their profits still go to youth arts education in Chicago. Needless to say, their hot sauce (and everything else they sell) is really, really good and I will be sad if their cafe ever moves out of my neighborhood.

Co-Op Sauce

There are so many more I could list, but do you have a favorite organization I missed? Share it in the comments!

Around My Table

“Living well is the best revenge.” That saying kept running through my head Saturday night as I sat in my living room talking with new friends, drinking wine, eating a homemade feast from Dorie Greenspan’s Around My French Table. While this wasn’t the original intent when I planned this dinner weeks ago, at least to the seven of us sitting there, it was the best possible response to Friday’s horrific news from Paris.

The coincidences surrounding this dinner made it feel like fate. It started with two articles: the first from Serious Eats about cookbook clubs (a combination potluck and book club with everyone bringing a dish from a chosen cookbook), the second a New York Times claim about the “death of the party,” blaming its demise on everything from the Internet (…huh?) and helicopter parenting to the real estate market and craft beer.

Around the table

I’ve been looking for more excuses to play hostess and am always looking for a reason to try new recipes (especially from my ever-expanding cookbook collection that gets neglected in favor of whatever’s popped up on the Internet lately) . So I left a comment on the cookbook club article saying I’d love to start one in Chicago and for anyone interested to email me.

Inviting strangers into my home with a vague hope that we’d all have some common interest in food–not something my normally introverted self would take on. But I didn’t want to leave it to chance that someone else would start a group and hope they’d invite me. Between the half-dozen people who emailed me and several other food-loving friends, I gathered about 15 people who were equally excited about the idea.

Sharing wine

I chose Around My French Table as the inaugural selection for the “Cooking the Books” club since it had a huge variety of recipes and Dorie Greenspan’s recipes are almost always fool-proof (and, of course, I’ve become a bit of a Francophile over the past year). I found out one of the people who emailed me from Serious Eats was from France and that the date I picked, November 14, coincided with the first French Restaurant Week in Chicago. Fate, I thought.

Then I heard the news on Friday and my heart broke.

Suddenly this dinner was so much more important than just meeting new friends and eating delicious homemade food–or maybe it was so important for exactly those reasons. The attack in Paris targeted those simply enjoying life with friends and loved ones–a dinner out, a concert, a soccer match. If there’s one thing I can do in response, I thought, it’s this: I can bring a handful of people together to share a meal.

So I braised short ribs, set out candles, found good party music, chilled bottles of wine–not to avoid what had happened, but to control the one thing I could when everything on the news seemed determined to show how little control we have.

PB140195

The dinner itself was everything I hoped for. Every dish was outstanding (I think that speaks both to everyone’s cooking skills and the recipes) but more importantly a group of near complete strangers with such varied backgrounds turned almost immediately into a dinner of dear friends, laughing, eating, and drinking like we’ve known each other for years. Of course the conversation revolved around food–what tweaks we made to the recipes, what inspired us to make a particular dish, what else we want to try. There’s something to be said for a group of people that can collectively nerd out over the kind of butter used in a dish.

Dinner is served
Pumpkin flans
Short ribs
Bread

Every bite was delicious
Credit to Sarah for this picture! Her plate looked much tidier than mine.

Sarah, our resident Frenchwoman, made a comment at the end of the evening that meant everything to me, though: after spending the better part of the past 24 hours on the phone with her family and friends, she was glad to have this dinner to look forward to. This was what she would be doing with her friends on a Saturday night in Paris.

Cheese plate
Dessert
I still can’t watch the news. It’s all too much–the posturing, blame, and misplaced anger, the sights and sounds and overwhelming pain–and too similar to so many, too many, other stories lately. But I can find and share food and comfort with friends. It might be a small thing, but when the world seems hellbent on making us afraid of enjoying life (and of welcoming strangers into our lives), it’s the least I can do.

Good people and good stories

Heavy thoughts aside, this dinner was incredibly fun and I can’t wait to do it again (Smitten Kitchen cookbook is on the docket for January!). Here’s what we made and a few thoughts on each dish:

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